Joko Widodo's phenomenal rise from a riverside slum where he grew up to the presidency of Indonesia has highlighted how far the world's third-largest democracy has drifted from a brutal authoritarian era ten years ago.
As his second and final five-year term ends in October, Widodo – seen by some as the Barack Obama of Asia – leaves a legacy of impressive economic growth and an ambitious range of infrastructure projects topped with a $33 billion plan to relocate Indonesia's congested capital. to the border island of Borneo.
Dismissed as a political lightweight by his rivals when he won the presidency in 2014, Widodo built a reputation as a soft-spoken reformer who promised to fight poverty and inequality by harnessing abundant resources and l Indonesia's tourist attraction to propel its economy, the largest in the South-East. Asia. He served as mayor of the city of Solo, where he was born into a working-class family in illegally built shacks along a river, then became governor of the capital, Jakarta, before winning his first presidential term.
Widodo was the first Indonesian president to emerge outside the political and military elite. But critics say it thrived on political compromises, became beholden to political party supporters and hosted former generals who served under the late authoritarian leader Suharto. His pragmatic deals eased opposition to his leadership, but also threatened Indonesia's fragile democracy that brought to power a commoner like him, the son of a timber seller.
Forging political compromises in the world's largest archipelago, marked by deep religious, ethnic and economic divisions, has been a constant struggle, even for past leaders.
Widodo was widely criticized when he appointed Prabowo Subianto – his main challenger in two presidential elections – as defense minister in 2019, after winning his second term.
“I am aware that there are people who call me stupid, idiot, ignorant, pharaoh, imbecile,” Widodo said in his state of the nation address last year . “What breaks my heart is that the polite culture and noble character of this nation seems to have disappeared. Freedom and democracy are used to express malice and slander.”
A special forces general accused of committing human rights atrocities during the Suharto era, Subianto is now the favorite in the February 14 elections. His vice presidential running mate is Widodo's eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, who is the mayor of Surakarta, Widodo's hometown in Central Java province.
Widodo's son did not meet the 40-year-old age requirement for his candidacy, but the Constitutional Court – led by the president's brother-in-law – made an exception in a ruling last year.
A group of critics were considering filing an impeachment case against Widodo, but legal experts say the chances of success are slim. He is still popular and Parliament is dominated by his allies.
Also known as Jokowi, Widodo, now 62, nurtured an image of an ordinary Indonesian with a soft spot for the underclass and a down-to-earth lifestyle that resonated among a broad base of ordinary voters.
He often mingled with working-class crowds in cheap sneakers and rolled-up sleeves to check on their concerns. He has taken selfies with hordes of journalists and is one of the biggest fans of Metallica, the American heavy metal band whose concerts he watched in the Indonesian capital when he was governor of Jakarta.
Widodo has enjoyed a consistently high approval rating, above 70 percent, in recent months, an impressive feat in the final years of a decade-long presidency. It also makes him a powerful proponent of elections, a kingmaker, despite legal restrictions against the practice. Opponents accused him of secretly using his influence to support his son and Subianto to create a new political dynasty.
He mocked the accusations and called on Indonesians to help the next leaders continue reforms aimed at fostering economic growth.
Widodo's flagship projects aimed to connect the nation of more than 17,000 islands with bridges, high-speed rail, toll roads, ports and airports.
“Jokowi is not a perfect leader, but he is still the best leader we have ever had,” said Jakarta resident Dwi Mustikarini. “He made Indonesia better and was respected by world leaders, but unfortunately his political ambition to create a dynasty was for him as an obstacle to ending his reign with a soft landing.
In a bid to generate more income and employment opportunities, Widodo banned the export of certain raw materials like nickel ore and encouraged their local processing to obtain better prices in foreign markets.
Aiming to attract investors and tourists and boost growth and employment beyond congested and overcrowded destinations like Jakarta, he launched one of the most ambitious and controversial projects of his presidency: moving the capital about 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) to Borneo. , a vast region of lush tropical forests where orangutans roam.
Under Widodo, Indonesia has enjoyed a remarkable period of growth averaging 5% per year, except in 2020, when the economy contracted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Its economic roadmap, titled “Golden Indonesia 2045,” projects Indonesia becoming one of the world's top five economies with a GDP of up to $9 trillion, exactly a century after gaining independence from Dutch colonizers.
This could be achieved if future leaders showed the courage to make “difficult and unpopular decisions” and gained support from different sectors, Widodo said in his speech last year. He warned that wasting this opportunity could return Indonesia to instability.
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